Over the course of his 20-year career, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has become synonymous with the plot twist. The device has become such an albatross around his neck that he seems to have spent the bulk of his career post-The Sixth Sense either trying to recreate that magic (The Village, The Happening) or trying to run away from it (The Last Airbender, After Earth).
With the exception of the vastly-underrated Unbreakable, few of these have been successful. Most, in fact, have been downright awful. So what keeps us going back for more, hoping the next one may be THE one? Why do his projects continue to draw big-name actors like Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith and in this latest case, James McAvoy?
The answer might lie in Split. A slow-burn thriller that gradually morphs into something more uncanny, the movie harks back to the best of his early works. It reminds us that beyond the bait-and-switch is a director who is an expert storyteller. Who, in his best works, depicts complicated, extraordinary people and stretches the tension of a tale to perfection.
And as if to put the plot twist to rest once and for all, Split doesn’t actually have one. Instead, it unfolds in a series of reveals until a thoroughly unexpected whole emerges.
Split begins, in fact, where most movies would end: with the revelation that the main character, Kevin (McAvoy), has dissociative identity disorder (DID), and therefore exhibits 23 distinct personalities.
The tension, then, is more of the what-happens-next variety, and Shyamalan is in fine form as he takes us on a nail-biting ride, aided by the almost-claustrophobic camerawork of Mike Gioulakis.
The heart of the movie though, is undoubtedly McAvoy. It’s no surprise that he would be drawn to playing Kevin; it is the type of showboating role actors love.
What’s crucial is that he delivers. Among the personalities he manifests are an obsessive-compulsive fanatic, a nine-year-old boy, a stern older woman, and an affable, chatty fashion designer – and he is simply mesmerising. In fact, the actor slips in and out of these personalities so effortlessly that it is only later one realises how thoroughly he inhabits each.
The premise of the film seems simple at first. Three teenage girls – friends Claire and Marcia, and loner Casey – are abducted and imprisoned by Kevin. As they become acquainted with a few of his alternate personalities, the girls become more terrified and confused about his intentions.
Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) immediately attempt to escape. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), however, is more wary. Her own traumatic past, which emerges slowly over the course of the film, causes her to take an intuitive approach. She engages with one of Kevin’s personalities, hoping it will lead to their freedom.
In Shyamalan’s movies, damaged characters often take centre stage, and Casey is no exception. And as it turns out, neither is Kevin. In his sessions with his DID therapist (Betty Buckley), we learn of his own childhood suffering and how this shaped the emergence of his personalities.
Split isn’t without its problems though. Characterisation, for instance. It is, of course, tough for any of the other roles to compete with Kevin, but with the exception of Casey, it feels like Shyamalan didn’t even try.
Claire and Marcia are literally locked in closets offscreen for much of the movie, while Kevin’s therapist seems expressly written for exposition. Taylor-Joy, though, puts in a quiet yet tense performance that is the perfect foil for McAvoy, relying on expression and body language to convey her inner landscape.
The plot also stretches credulity, especially as it heads towards the climax. There are many things here that require quite a leap of imagination, and the film is likely to lose a few viewers as it plays with its own definitions of Kevin’s condition.
Shyamalan, though, has always been a storyteller who treads the outer limits of possibility, and Split is no different. And it is for those who willingly travel with him to these odd places that Split is made.
The Sixth Sense, after all, wasn’t really about seeing ghosts; it was about the pain of grieving. Unbreakable was less about people with superhuman abilities and more about the pain of not belonging. Similarly, Split’s real story isn’t about DID or abduction; it is about the pain of childhood abuse and its indelible effects.
The movie isn’t so much a comeback as it is a return to the kind of filmmaking that drew his followers in the first place. As the last piece of the puzzle clicks into place, we realise that it was never just about the plot twist.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Izzie Coffey